The Alabama entrepreneurs behind Go Play Therapy and Amazing Fruit Products-US, both slated to speak at the Alabama Launchpad Startup Competition Finale in Fort Payne on Wednesday, November 14, share their startup insights with Bham Now.
1. Turn Hardship Into Good
The story behind Go Play Therapy
“From the very first day we opened the doors, I’ve believed that if we can be the light in someone’s darkness, then we’ve made progress.”Silvia Hernandez, founder, Go Play Therapy
It’s easy to understand why the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama (EDPA) chose Silvia Hernandez as a panelist for the November 2018 Alabama Launchpad Startup Competition Finale.
She founded Go Play Therapy in Fort Payne, Alabama, in 2015. Her team of over 30 therapists provides pediatric occupational, physical and speech therapy services to the citizens of DeKalb County. In less than four years, her business has served some 2,500 patients and garnered four Best of DeKalb annual awards.
Over the phone, Hernandez’ upbeat personality and friendly Southern accent stand out. You wouldn’t guess her journey has been far from easy. At the same time, that journey is what’s made her the entrepreneur she is today.
Born in Mexico, Hernandez became a U.S. resident at age 12 and a U.S. citizen—the first in her family—at age 19. In high school, she faced discrimination and dropped out before her senior year, earning her GED instead. Her first child was born with cystic fibrosis. So was her second child, who passed away before he reached 11 months.
While seeking treatment for her children, she built relationships with the physical therapy community. Eventually, one clinic invited her on board as an interpreter. Then, she worked her way up to secretary and office manager, educating herself along the way. Finally, she opened her own clinic, Go Play Therapy.
Being the light
As an entrepreneur, Hernandez is hardworking, resourceful and—perhaps most importantly in her business—compassionate.
Go Play Therapy treats a wide array of pediatric patients, from those on the autism spectrum to those with Down syndrome. Some need speech therapy; others require weekly maintenance to prevent bed sores. While her therapists concentrate on patient progress and well-being, Hernandez runs the business and focuses on the parents. She knows precisely what they are going through.
“I like to meet the parents face to face. Being in a small town, it’s a big deal to make it personal. I know their background and the areas they are struggling with so I can help them or provide a different type of resource if needed. If they cancel an appointment, I need to know if Dad lost his job and they don’t have enough gas money to get there.”
The story behind Amazing Fruit Products-US
“Our city has lost a lot of employees and jobs in our hosiery industry, and part of our desire is to provide jobs.”Randy McClung, president, Amazing Fruit Products-US
When does an Alabama printing and paper businessman become the producer of a healthful snack distributed to K-12 schools nationwide? Answer: when market forces change, and your manufacturing expertise translates to an emerging sector.
For competitors and attendees at the November 2018 Alabama Launchpad Startup Competition Finale, panelist Randy McClung of Fort Fayne has a lifetime of business lessons to impart.
He touts more than two decades of experience in the printing and paper industry, and even more in manufacturing in general. But his business began waning around the time of the economic recession of 2008. He needed a new opportunity, and so did Fort Payne. Once the Sock Capital of the World, the city lost its official title in the first decade of the 21st century as factories moved overseas.
A new plant comes to Fort Payne
Meanwhile, a new market was about to emerge. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 dramatically changed nutrition guidelines for public schools. Consequently, school nutrition managers nationwide were challenged to source foods that fit the new criteria.
Enter the Amazin’ Raisin, a product developed in Canada that uses patented technology to infuse raisins with the natural flavor of fruits like strawberries, lemons, peaches and watermelons—without added sugar or ingredients you can’t pronounce.
Most notable from a market perspective, the Amazin’ Raisin met the fruit serving requirements of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
When a proposal to produce the Amazin’ Raisin in the U.S. landed on the desk of Jimmy Durham, longtime executive director of DeKalb County Economic Development Authority, he thought of McClung. His manufacturing expertise was exactly what the Amazin’ Raisin needed to compete in the U.S. school nutrition market.
“I served on the local school board, and so did Jimmy. We knew about the feeding problems that school districts across the nation were having with the new regulations.”Randy McClung, president, Amazing Fruit Products-US
Amazing Fruit Products-US began with McClung and his wife. Four years later, the plant is up and running, producing the Amazin’ Raisin in Fort Payne. Business is growing modestly but steadily, with a sales presence in 40 states. In addition to the school nutrition market, they’re turning their sights to retail markets soon and recently launched on Amazon.
2. Take Advantage of Every Resource
“I took every free class I could, from online tutorials on Blue Cross Blue Shield’s and Medicaid’s websites to learn how to bill insurance, to YouTube videos that explain how to use QuickBooks.”Silvia Hernandez, founder, Go Play Therapy
Hernandez took college courses here and there after high school, but once she found her career path, she used free resources to learn the skills she needed.
“Take advantage every free resource because there’s so much out there. And talk to other business owners. You can never ask enough questions,” she said.
Asking for help
“We’ve had a lot of support—the local government, the local utilities. It took the unknown things away from us and gave us folks in every case who knew what was going on.”Randy McClung, president, Amazing Fruit Products-US
Like Hernandez, McClung also relied on available resources to help him launch Amazing Fruit Products-US. In particular, he credits the DeKalb County Economic Development Authority and the Alabama International Trade Center, housed at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, for being sources of knowledge and helping him think through his business plan.
As a food facility, Amazing Fruit Products-US must adhere to strict FDA regulations, but in the beginning, McClung’s knowledge of those regulations was pretty small. The local health department and state agency helped him navigate.
At one point, he was talking with the FDA state office in Montgomery about the challenges his business was facing when the person on the other end of the line made a comment McClung will never forget.
“She said, ‘We’ll help you. If we can’t do it from Montgomery, we’ll come to Fort Payne and stay till we help you get it right.'”
EDPA is here to help you
If you are starting a business in Alabama, one resource you can rely on is the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama (EDPA).
Alabama Launchpad, a program of the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama (EDPA), helps high-growth companies start, stay and grow in Alabama. Started in 2006, Alabama Launchpad is the state’s largest virtual accelerator and early seed investor and drives innovation and job growth through startup competitions and ongoing mentoring for launching and growing businesses in Alabama.
3. Network, and Network Some More
“I don’t think you can ever network enough. It’s about getting your face and your company name out there.”Silvia Hernandez, founder, Go Play Therapy
Hernandez’ whole business is based on relationships, from her therapists on staff, all of whom she worked with before, to her patients, whose parents learn about Go Play Therapy through word of mouth and recommendations. Now that she must recruit new staff, she’s building new relationships with colleges.
“I’m on the local chamber of commerce now, and that’s helped me a lot with getting out and networking,” Hernandez said. “I used to not want to get out and shake hands and talk to people. Now that I’ve done it and people know my business, I’m starting to hear, ‘Oh, my grandkid goes there,’ or ‘Oh, my daughter goes there.'”
4. Work Hard
“I’ve been involved in two startups now, and I’ve been involved in companies where they were developing new products. In every case, the estimation of what it really was going to take in time, effort and capital always seemed to grow.”Randy McClung, president, Amazing Fruit Products-US
It’s hard to estimate what those totals are going to be, McClung said. If you operate a small business, expect it to be a six to seven days a week job.
If you want to hear Hernandez and McClung speak live, check out the Alabama Launchpad Startup Competition Finale on Nov. 14, 2018, at the DeKalb Theatre in Fort Payne. Tickets can be purchased HERE.
Learn more about Alabama Launchpad at alabamalaunchpad.com and follow on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Related: Meet Neowaste and Moovmo, 2 Birmingham-based Alabama Launchpad winners set to transform their industries